For the majority of our history, we’ve relied on the inherent wisdom of plants for both medicine and nourishment. Even as modern pharmaceuticals become widespread, nature continues to provide a plethora of safe, effective remedies to those who know where to look.
High quality dried herbs are easier than ever to source from reputable companies like Mountain Rose Herbs, Starwest Botanicals and Oregon’s Wild Harvest. With the click of a mouse, a treasure trove of high-quality dried herbs can be delivered to your doorstep in a matter of days.
Creating your own home herbal apothecary from locally foraged and homegrown plants can take your herbal preparations to a whole other level! In addition to the cost savings, there’s something profoundly satisfying about growing, harvesting and preparing your own herbal remedies. It links us to that traditional wisdom passed down to us through generations.
Foraging offers a unique opportunity to connect with our local ecosystems. It heightens our senses as we learn to recognize different plants, appreciate their unique scents, textures and colors, and gain an understanding of their seasonal cycles. Each plant you gather carries its unique story and, I would argue, an extra *something* that you contributed via your relationship with the plant.
All that said, the convenience of purchased herbs absolutely has its place. I don’t forage everything (not even close). I buy quite a few of my herbs. Not everything I like to work with grows where I live and, for those things, I’m a big fan of companies like Mountain Rose Herbs and Starwest Botanicals.
It doesn’t have to be be all or nothing! As a card carrying perfectionist, I’m incredibly fond of the mantra:
“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”
It’s something I have to remind myself of constantly.
We’re just talking about making an effort to grow or forage what you can. “Foraging” in your own garden can be just as rewarding as wildcrafting herbs. Cultivating a medicinal herb garden (even if it’s just a mini one on a south-facing windowsill) fosters an intimate relationship with your plants and reduces the strain on wild plant populations — plus you always have a steady supply of herbs at your fingertips! Creating a living apothecary allows you to connect with nature while crafting potent plant-based medicines tailored to your family’s needs.
Start with the basics
At its heart, herbalism is about developing a relationship with plants.
Begin by simply paying attention to what’s growing around you. Learn to identify a few species and become comfortable with them. Educate yourself about their growth cycles. Get to know the local flora through season-by-season observation.
Invest in field guides and learn to use them. I probably use my Lone Pine field guides more than any of the others. It’s worn, dog-eared and well used. Always consult multiple sources when identifying a new-to-you plant. Learning to accurately identify plants is crucial to ensure you’re collecting only safe, beneficial and unthreatened herbs.
I cannot stress this part enough. Improper identification can lead to serious health consequences. Never ever consume a plant you’re not 120% certain about.
Local experts can be invaluable for this. When in doubt, seek guidance from local plant people for insights into regional plant identification and knowledge. Take workshops or consider joining local foraging groups. While books and online resources will always be an indispensable part of your arsenal, nothing beats hands on learning from experienced herbalists and botanists who know your local area!
It’s also vital to have a thorough understanding of a plant’s growth cycle, best harvesting times and specific uses.
Start your own materia medica
A materia medica is a comprehensive reference or journal of plant monographs that herbalists and natural healers use to document information about medicinal plants. If you’re unsure where to start and prefer a template, I’ve made a handy printable monograph to get you started! ♥
Print one of these for each plant you work with and keep them in a dedicated binder. Make notes about your personal experiences with the plant, where you found it, what you’ve learned about its growth cycle, best harvesting time, specific uses, therapeutic actions, favorite preparations and recipes, etc. Try your hand at sketching the plant in the provided frame.
Recording your experiences helps you to refine your knowledge, plus it creates an invaluable personalized resource that you will likely reference again and again!
Different herbs have different optimal harvesting times. Understanding when each plant is at its peak for medicinal potency and flavor is fundamental to creating an effective home apothecary.
As always, respecting the environment and plant populations is non-negotiable. Sustainable harvesting practices should always be followed to ensure the health and longevity of both plant populations and their ecosystems.
Harvest only from abundant populations to avoid depleting rare or endangered species. We are often advised to take only one-third of the plant material, leaving one-third for wildlife and one-third for future growth, but it’s even better to seek a plant stand large enough to take only a small amount from each plant.
If you’re wildcrafting on private land or protected areas, make certain you have the necessary permissions.
Make certain that the plants you choose to harvest have not been sprayed.
Strive to leave the land looking as though you were never there.
Preserve your harvest
Your fresh foraged bounty can be immediately transformed into a variety of herbal preparations that also preserve them. Start simply by infusing single herbs into water, oils, honey, vinegar, glycerin or alcohol to appreciate their unique energetics. Taste, smell and get to know the personalities of your plant allies before moving on to more complicated methods of extracting the medicinal properties from your herbs.
Air drying is traditional and involves hanging herbs upside down in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight, or placing on a screen of some sort that allows for air flow all around the plant.
For more controlled drying, a dehydrator on a low heat setting (typically no more than 110°F / 43°C) may be used. Excalibur dehydrators are fabulous, as is my current favorite — the Tribest Sedona Express is incredibly well-built with a 2-stage timer and a heavy hinged glass door that allows you to easily keep tabs on your drying projects.
If you’re lucky enough to own a home freeze dryer, this is probably the gold standard for drying and preserving a plant’s potency. Freeze drying involves freezing the herbs and then removing moisture from them through sublimation, which is the transition of water from a solid (ice) directly into vapor (water vapor) without passing through the liquid phase. This process preserves the herbs’ delicate compounds, including volatile oils, antioxidants and other bioactive substances that give plants their medicinal qualities. Freeze-drying also preserves herbs’ color, aroma and flavor, making them more appealing for medicinal and culinary applications.
Harvest Right makes a line of high quality home machines that make home freeze drying attainable. It’s a fabulous way to preserve your garden produce!
Generally speaking, it’s best to leave the plant matter intact whenever it makes sense to do so.
Dry leaves and flowers whole to help preserve their essential oils and medicinal compounds. Whole leaves and flowers will have a longer shelf life and retain their flavor and potency since they have less surface area exposed to oxidize.
Tougher plant matter such as roots and bark should be chopped into smaller pieces to allow them dry more evenly and thoroughly, reducing the risk of mold or spoilage.
Seeds can generally be dried intact, especially if they are small. However, if you’re dealing with larger seeds, you might consider gently cracking or breaking them before drying. This will aid in the drying process and also make it easier to extract the seeds from their casings if applicable.
Especially woody stems can also take longer to dry. Depending on the herb and stem diameter, consider removing the leaves and flowers from the stems and drying them separately.
Freezing is another way to preserve the medicinal properties of certain herbs that might not retain their potency as well through traditional drying.
Mucilaginous herbs, like marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) and plantain (Plantago) contain mucilage that imparts soothing and demulcent properties. Freezing can help maintain their viscous texture, making them easy to add to “throat coat” teas, sore throat lozenges and drawing poultices.
The volatile oils of aromatic herbs can also evaporate or degrade when exposed to heat and air, leading to loss of these beneficial compounds. Fresh herbs such as basil (Ocimum basilicum), mint (Mentha spp.) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) can be frozen in ice cube trays along with a little water, olive oil or ghee to preserve their essential oil content, flavor and aroma.
Best storage practices
Proper storage is just as important as proper drying techniques. Herbs, like any food, have a shelf life that is dependent on the manner in which they’re kept.
Always store dried herbs in airtight, preferably glass containers such as mason jars, away from light, heat and humidity. Air will oxidize your precious herbs over time, making them break down much more quickly.
Before you close up the jar, maybe absolutely certain your herbs are good and dry — especially if you’re harvesting and drying your own. Dried herbs must be completely dry or they will develop mold. Properly dried herbs will feel crisp and crumble easily.
Store your jars in a cool, dry and dark location to maintain their quality for as long as possible. Light and heat can both cause chemical reactions that lead to the breakdown of essential oils, antioxidants and other constituents responsible for your herbs’ medicinal and aromatic qualities. A pantry or cupboard away from direct sunlight and heat sources like stoves, ovens or radiators is ideal.
Label each jar with the herb’s name and harvest date for easy identification, allowing you to easily access the healing properties of each herb when needed.
(Trust me on this — plants that are easily identified while fresh may begin to look (and sometimes even smell) very similar dried and stored in identical jars!)
Every plant is different
Of course, these guidelines are generalized. Each plant species may have specific requirements, so it’s essential to do your own research and be prepared to adapt your harvesting practices accordingly.
The best way to get started is simply to start. ♥